The Internet's power is there for the asking

Robert Gellman

I have been involved in online activity continuously since the mid-1980s, but it was only a few years ago that I developed my own Internet rule: The first place to look for any information or document is the Internet.

This is not to suggest that all information is available on the Net. The world, and government agencies in particular, have a long way to go to reach that goal. I am often frustrated after a long search that produces nothing. Equally frustrating is the opposite: a search that produces so much chaff that you can't find the wheat.

My Internet rule evolved when I found that as the Internet grew and more information resources were connected to it, an online search was more likely than not to produce a positive result. No other resource, except perhaps the right reference book on a nearby shelf, is as convenient to use. I can search the Net anytime I want without worrying about the weather, library hours, waiting in line, finding that the book I want is checked out, and playing telephone tag.

A consequence of online information searching is something that I call the Internet experience. That experience can be finding an obscure bit of information that might have taken days to find any other way. Or it can be making a connection with an otherwise unknown or unavailable expert.

Let me cite a couple of examples. I was walking through Washington's Chinatown recently, and I noticed a plaque on a building at 604 H St. N.W. The plaque identified the structure, now a Chinese restaurant, as the Surratt Boarding House, the infamous meeting place for John Wilkes Booth and the others who conspired to assassinate President Lincoln in 1865.

Yet I knew that the Surratt house was actually at 541 H St., a block away and across the street. I wasn't about to deny the accuracy of the plaque, but I wanted to reconcile what I knew with what I saw. When I returned home, I got online and quickly found a home page for the Surratt Society. The page had lots of information about the Surratts, Booth and the boarding house.

The page also offered the opportunity to ask questions, and I posed mine. The next day I got a note from the webmaster telling me that the two addresses were in fact the same house. The streets had been renumbered, and addressing conventions had changed. That answered a small mystery that would have been difficult to solve without a lot of research in a library'if it could even have been solved there.

A second example: A local newspaper runs a cooking column by a chemistry professor. I had a question'which had bothered me for years'about microwave ovens. The column included an e-mail address for questions but did not promise individual answers. I sent off my question and, somewhat to my surprise, received an e-mail from the professor the next day. Were it not for the e-mail address, I never would have tried to contact the author.

I have been on the other end of these experiences, too. I occasionally have posted information to a list server that others found useful. Without the list server, we would have had no other way to share information. Also, I sometimes get questions from people I don't know'including readers of GCN'who are able to find me because of my Internet address. Sometimes I can help them find the information they seek.

As a federal employee concerned with the generation and dissemination of program information, you may be in a position to provide someone with a unique Internet experience. You have knowledge and expertise that somebody needs. If you are like most of your colleagues, you are willing to help people by telling them about information resources, agency activities or substantive matters on which you may be the leading expert for your agency, the federal government or even the world.

Sharing alike

The Internet medium allows information resources, including people, to be shared. Web pages help by announcing the resources available and whom to contact for information. If you think about it this way, you may get a completely different idea about how to design a page. Don't just offer documents. Give users a way to draw on your expertise and that of your colleagues. Be someone else's Internet experience.

I won't kid you and tell you that it is always fun or pleasant. But like the Internet itself, being a resource is gratifying more often than not.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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